California Dreams and Expiration Dates: “Chungking Express”

by Ashley Naftule

I’ve been “putting myself out there” recently.

In 21st terms, that means I’ve vanquished what lingering reservations about online dating I had left and dived head-on into the worlds of Matches and OkCupids and swipe apps. As someone with a history of dating people I’ve known as friends first, throwing myself into the realm of wooing total strangers at the tender age of 34 is… a bit of a headfuck, to put it mildly.

Like any film lover, I often turn to movies as both a source of comfort and a way to help make sense of the world. It’s interesting to think that of all the films I turn to to help untie the knots in my brain when it comes to romance, a film shot in 1994 is the one that most perfectly captures my ambivalent feelings on “modern love”.

Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express contains multitudes. It’s a lovingly crafted meditation on heartbreak and the need to open your heart back up to the world. It’s a lush showcase of cinematographic brilliance: DPs Christopher Doyle and Lau Wai-Keung pack the film with gorgeous imagery (a fish tank that looks like it’s full of glowing pink lemonade; CDs spinning in a jukebox that shimmer with prismatic colors; a ceiling fan’s whirring blades looking like spun fire); it’s a meet-cute love story that plays with genre conventions (throwing in drug deals and a femme fatale); and it’s a perfect depiction and deconstruction of the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl trope (even though the film came out long before the trope had a name).

The film tells two different stories – both of them are about Hong Kong policemen who have had their hearts broken, both of whom frequent the same restaurant (the titular Express). In the first story, Cop 223 (played by Takeshi Kaneshiro) tries to cope with being dumped by buying cans of pineapples that will expire on May 1st (his birthday, and the date that marks his one month “breakup anniversary”). He ends up becoming enamored with a drug dealer in a blonde wig (played by Brigitte Lin), and they end up spending a drunken, sexless night together. In the second story, Cop 663 (Tony Leung) gets dumped by his flight attendant girlfriend (Valerie Chow) and ends up catching the eye of a new girl (Faye Wong) working at the restaurant he swings by all the time. When his ex drops off his apartment keys, Faye Wong’s character uses the keys to break into his apartment and clean it up for him.

Kar-Wai delineates both sections of the film with shifts in both genre and style. The first section looks and feels like something out of a William Gibson novel. It depicts a seamy city, teeming with strangers and set aflame with neon. It almost feels like a tone poem about globalization – despite the foreign setting, we see U.S. trappings everywhere. Whether its 223 bumming around in a Circle K or his silhouette standing in front of a huge McDonalds sign as he calls his ex, we see a city colonized by brands and multinational products. The soundtrack reflects this too – the bar where Lin’s dealer passes through serves Mexican beer and plays classic reggae tunes on the jukebox, while smokier Twin Peaks-style jazz and college radio dreampop underscores other scenes.

Doyle and Wai-Keung use slow-mo/sped-up effects to captivating effect in this early section, placing Lin and Kaneshiro as still rocks around which rivers of people on the street part around them in yellow-lit blurs.

What also makes the first section stand apart is its playful use of genre. There’s drugs and a woman in trouble, but that whole part of the story is left unclear. We’re never quite sure why Lin has fallen out with the group of Indian smugglers that we see her coaching earlier in the film (in a neat sequence where we see cobblers stick bags of coke inside shoe heels while couriers crab-walk out of the bathroom with baggies discretely shoved up their asses). We know there’s a white man in the reggae bar with a thing for Chinese women wearing blonde wigs; presumably he’s behind the screwing of this drug deal pooch. But the film plays loose with the details: there’s a chase scene, a few shootouts, and a brief halfhearted child kidnapping, and that’s it. It feels as lightweight and consequence free as the crime segments in Godard’s Anna Karina films. It’s as if Kar-Wai heard JLG’s maxim of “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun” and used that as a launchpad for the first half of the film.

The second section drops the genre trappings entirely. It’s a slower, more romantic sequence with bright blue colors (whereas yellows seem to dominate the first section). It almost feels like it could be a ‘2000s indie romcom, with the subplot of Faye breaking into and remodeling Leung’s apartment for him. It’s a story that feels oddly romantic and beautiful and thoughtful (noticing Leung has trouble sleeping, she spikes drinks in his fridge with sleeping pills), even though its the kind of behavior that would terrify us and have us reaching for a restraining order in real life (see: the aforementioned sleeping pills).

What unifies both sections is its take on heartbreak. It’s a rare to see a film that tackles the subject with such subtlety. Most Hollywood films shorthand breakups with montages of crying and people gorging themselves on ice cream. Chungking Express is that rare film that shows a different yet true to life perspective on romantic loss: it shows how listless and purposeless your life can feel after a breakup. How the end of a relationship also means the end of a routine, a unifying pattern, for your day to day life. It also shows the greatest danger that exists to romance: change.

The characters in Chungking Express are obsessed with patterns and routines. Change is the enemy, the killer of their love. When Cop 663, who always orders the chef salad for his girlfriend, decides to switch it up and bring her different dishes instead, she ends up breaking up with him to explore her options. “Should have went with the chef salad,” he says ruefully, as though by giving his girlfriend a different dish he made her aware of the fact that there were other men she could sample out there. Why always eat chef salad? is the unspoken question haunting Leung’s face.

The same problem vexes Cop 223. Dumped and swiftly replaced by his ex, he’s at first unwilling to change his daily routines. He still calls her family to check up on them and say hello; he still carries around a beeper and checks his answering machine to see if she called; he still thinks about calling her first whenever something good happens to him. When he almost throws a shit fit in a convenience store when he’s told they don’t carry any more pineapple cans with a May 1st expiration date, he makes his feelings explicit to the clerk: to 223, he IS the can. An expired good, tossed out so his ex could feast on something fresher.

Watching Chungking Express again made me think about how much those anxieties mirrored the experience of swipe apps. The feeling that there’s always a fresher can of pineapple who’s just a swipe away, and the worry that even if you find someone you build a genuine connection with, what’s to stop them from waking up one day and deciding they’ve had enough of the chef salad? It’s as Lin says to 223 in the bar when he talks to her about her ex (after a hilariously long sequence where he tries hitting on her in four different languages, using the same dumb pickup line: “Do you like pineapples?”): what good is it to know someone? You know she likes pineapples. One day she likes the taste of pineapples, the next day she doesn’t.

And therein lies the heart of the film. It’s a fear of change that paralyzes both cops, and to Lin and Faye’s characters. They all have to embrace change and cast off the patterns they’ve become trapped in: for 223, it’s eating all that expired pineapple and having a platonic encounter with a strange woman in a bar that shows him a life beyond his ex; for 663, it’s accepting that his girlfriend isn’t coming back and quitting his job as a cop that opens him up to new possibilites; for Lin’s nameless dealer, it’s killing her treacherous ex and discarding her wig afterwards that frees her; and for Faye, it’s going from spending all her days listening to “California Dreamin'” to actually going TO California. For everyone in Chungking Express, it’s learning to accept the harsh truth that to the people they love, they could very well have expiration dates. But that’s okay – because there could be someone sweeter waiting in the wings for them, too.

Another impressive quality of the film is how both female characters embody and refute the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl trope. Both of them are more animated and stranger than their male counterparts: Lin a cold and diffident femme fatale, Wong a pixie-cut cutie who listens to The Cranberries and “California Dreamin'” all day long. But unlike the Kirsten Dunsts and Natalie Portman MPDGs that litter too-cute romcoms in the 21st century, their characters aren’t JUST there to get our lovelorn cops out of their funks. If anything, Lin is there as a mocking counterpoint to 223’s romantic moping. When he hits on her at the bar, pegging her as a jilted woman who wears sunglasses to hide her tears, he couldn’t be more blind or ignorant to her real problems as a woman on the run for her life. She’s got REAL problems; he’s got a boo-boo on his heart.

And while Faye also lifts Leung’s spirits with her home invasions/remodeling efforts, it’s really HER story in part two of the film. She’s the real mystery of the film. Sure, Leung’s a fine looking dude, but what else is driving her to do what she does to him? What compels her to break into a relative stranger’s apartment and clean it up for him? How bored is she? She muses that she does it as a kind of sleepwalking (ironic, considering her life working at her cousin’s restaurant, listening to the same song on repeat, seems like the time when she’s really sleepwalking).

Faye’s home invasions also inspire one of the film’s biggest laughs, when Leung (in voice-over) reflects on how observant he’s become lately, despite the fact he hasn’t noticed that his apartment has been COMPLETELY changed without him lifting a finger. It’s an interesting question that the film doesn’t fully answer: just how aware is Leung of what’s going on? Even though he appears shocked when he catches Faye in the act, he asks her out on a date the next day, seemingly totally cool with her Ninja Interior Design routine. He doesn’t seem that surprised by it. It’s something I like to think about whenever I rewatch the movie – how much the meaning of certain scenes change if you assume that Leung knows what’s going on.

But what really sticks out with Kar-Wai’s film is its refusal to give its love stories a tidy ending. In the first section, there’s zero hope or indication that Lin and 223 will ever meet again. And in the final moments of part 2, as 663 and Faye (now an airline stewardess, just like his ex) reconnect, we’re left to wonder if the two of them are going to follow through with their obvious attraction to each other. Maybe they won’t- maybe they don’t need to. Because of their earlier interactions with each other, Faye has followed her California dreams to California and beyond and 663 has given up being a cop and became a restaurant owner (and seems way happier in his new role). Their time together revealed the expiration dates on their old lives and inspired them to pick up new ones.

Chungking Express is a film I come back to again and again. It’s a beautiful movie – a feast for the eyes and ears. But it’s a film that grows more resonant with time. I can certainly relate to it in ways that I couldn’t when I first saw it in my early 20’s. It’s a film that’s on my mind when I swipe through profile after profile on my phone, seeing women posting what are basically grocery lists of personality and lifestyle traits for what their ideal mates should be. Must like hiking, whisky, Jesus, sports, the outdoors, kids, no kids, appreciate sarcasm, be laidback, be ambitious, be playful, no games, have your shit together, take no shit, and on and on and on.

I read those traits and I think of Lin talking about pineapple. The check boxes you want to mark off today – will you still want them tomorrow? And what of all the check boxes and people you’re missing out on, by focusing on what you now? It’s the thing that almost ruined 223 and 663- so focused on their past, on their “types”, that they almost missed out on the good things in front of them.

But I’m no different – there’s some things I love today that I’ll probably grow weary of tomorrow. I’ve got my own boxes to check off… I’m a simple man, though. All I really want in life is someone I can watch Chungking Express with.

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